‘The path of peace’ (Luke 1:79): Can our faith help us when we face depression, anxiety, and stress?

MentalHealthBrainToday is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.

mental-healthIn 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.

Mental-health-problems-007In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.

Praying1It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.

Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.

prayingHands_small_280x240Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.

79bd66b9-783a-43e8-8b27-bd6a663b5c51Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.

let-go-let-godWithin many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.

Psalm46.10A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.

Worry may not kill you, but it can stop you living

St Paul's TalkIt’s been a busy summer of giving talks, sermons, and radio thoughts-for-the-day. This hectic time is not over, as I am due to visit London in a few weeks time to speak at St Paul’s Cathedral (1pm Sunday 5 October), St Mary’s Ealing (6pm 5 October), and on Premier Christian Radio (11.10am Monday 6 October). Time has not allowed me to write many blog posts recently, so I thought I’d share some of the talks I’ve given, in churches, conferences, and on radio. The first talk is on fear and worry:

 

child-with-toy-airplaneTwo weeks ago, my eight-month old son did something that I hadn’t done until I was 25 years old – he flew in an aeroplane for the very first time, as we visited his grandma in Germany. Perhaps it’s because I had not flown as a child, but I’m not a good passenger on an aeroplane. I can just about cope once we’re in the air, but during take-off I am a nightmare. I remember once travelling to Malta with my sister and the take-off was so bumpy that my nail marks remained in her hand for days afterwards. A few years later, I was travelling to Lourdes in France with a friend of mine. He still recounts the story, describing me praying the Lord’s Prayer as we took off. The problem was that I was praying it out loud. And, to top it off, I was wearing my dog collar at the time, so all the other passengers started panicking, seeing a vicar sweating buckets and loudly praying as we took off! But two weeks ago, as the fear started building up in me during take-off, I looked across at my baby son who was on his mum’s lap. He didn’t know what was happening, and so had no fear in him whatsoever – he was smiling away, chewing the seat belt and flirting with the woman who was sitting next to him. At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that my fear was stopping me being fully alive, it was stopping me really enjoying the moment.

worry-notThe experience also led me to reflect on how I have in the past allowed fear to rule my life. When I wrote my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering, most people presumed that it was about coping with pain, because of the degenerate back condition that I have. It was, however, actually about the suffering that we all go through in our minds when things go wrong – when we are ill, when we are grieving, when we are lonely, and we are depressed, when we are anxious. Fear is like a worm that gets in your mind and stays there wriggling around. Of course fear doesn’t kill you, but it certainly can stop you living. And the real irony is that our worries most often never come to fruition. ‘Who says worry doesn’t help?’ I once overheard someone quip, ‘It certainly does help – every time I worry about something it doesn’t happen!’ A recent film called About Time put it another way: “the real troubles in your life will always be the things that never crossed your worried mind”. And isn’t that just true – we’ve got enough to worry about in real life without worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. The problem is, of course, that letting our fears and worries go is not an easy thing.

MtSinaiBut, as a Christian, I know there’s good news in all this. That good news is that my faith, and my God, is not in the business of stopping people living, but is rather in the business of bringing life, of bringing joy, of bringing love into our lives. I picked up my Bible yesterday and read the story of Elijah searching for God when his life was threatened and he faced fear and hopelessness. When he finds God (1 Kings 19:11-13), it is not in a powerful earthquake or the swirling wind, as we might expect to find an almighty, transcendent being, but rather in stillness and in the “sound of sheer silence”. In other words, when we’re facing fear and worry, God can seem distant, but we’re challenged to listen for him in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.

let-go-let-godPerhaps like Elijah, we need stillness and calm to help us connect with God and combat our worries and fears. But God can come and touch our hearts in all sorts of ways in our day-to-day lives – meeting up with a friend, listening to music, spending time in prayer, reading a good novel, a walk in the beautiful countryside, doing a good deed for somebody, and so on. When we connect with God in any of these ways, our hearts can be lifted, if only for a brief moment, and then slowly but surely he helps us let go of our worries and he carries us through our anxieties.